Story Delivery Vehicle: The Revolution Will Not Be Fertilized – “Lili”

Title screen

What is it? – A third-person adventure game created by small newcomer studio BitMonster, set on an island populated by wooden automatons and the forest spirits which subjugate them

How do I get it into my brain? – currently available for certain iOS devices


So here was a nice little surprise. The iPhone and iPad are turning out to be pretty swell casual game devices, but the marketplace is flooded with so many thousands of variations on the same game types that it’s a bit of a dig to find something interesting. That can be a bit of an adventure in itself, but here we have a unique little adventure game that lends itself well to this platform. I honestly wasn’t expecting to have too much to say about it… the only reason I looked at all was because the developer and some of the reviewers hinted at a story. Especially on these platforms, so many small-scale games eschew any sort of narrative, settling for a simple premise and letting the gameplay stand as the hook. And yet, more than the gameplay itself, I found myself compelled to proceed to see how events in the story played out, and what little discoveries were waiting behind locked doors and in treasure chests. Plus, I figured out how to take screenshots with my iPad, so I am taking the opportunity to play around with article format some more!

What Are We Fighting For?

So, what’s the premise? In a nutshell, Lili is a student of Vegi-Magical Studies, and has arrived on the island of Geos in search of magical flowers for her final assignment. Upon her arrival, she discovers a land inhabited by surly forest spirits, and their enslaved mechanical constructs. She learns from the constructs that the rare flower specimens she seeks grow on the backs of the spirits. Also, the constructs are enslaved and would like to no longer be, thanks, so why not help them overthrow the Mayor’s reign? So, without much compunction, Lili sets out to stir up trouble, rip flowers off these weird creatures’ backs, and poke around in the musty and hidden corners of this strange new land.

As events progress, it is learned that the constructs may in fact be the souls of previously normal people trapped in robotic forms by the mayor, who also wields control over them by way of a magical mind control crystal. It is also learned that Lili is not particularly enthused about having to collect those flowers for her school assignment, because the professor, her father, has heaped expectations upon her that she will follow in his footsteps as a Vegi-Magical whatever. Lili laments that people should not be defined by their roles, or have their roles defined for them. Isn’t it thematically useful, then, that she has arrived on this island, where all the constructs are named after their roles, which have been decided for them? It’s a perfectly cromulent setup.

Well, it may only be sub-cromulent, actually. In truth, the revelations about Lili’s feelings come out of left field about a quarter of the way along, almost like the creators hadn’t decided on her arc until then. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to frontload with info, especially when it’s fundamental to a character’s motivations. Up until then, Lili is essentially a vessel for the player, with no apparent conflicts or desires of her own. One does not have to bluntly state “Lili doesn’t want to be here and doesn’t want to follow in her father’s footsteps” (though one could), but one should at least establish that Lili is not super-jazzed about this journey, for reasons which are yet unknown. She also very easily goes along with the constructs’ urgings to stir up trouble… If we knew she wasn’t hype about this trip initially, it could color her behavior. “Oh, maybe there’s something exciting for me here after all.” And, in all honesty, revealing that her professor is also her father isn’t that compelling of a late-arc plot reveal for this scenario. Does it increase the tension or mystery to not know who the professor is? Unless the story sets it up early on that his identity should be something we wonder about, then no. As it plays out, it’s just a sort of forgotten detail until it’s specified.

This is something even accomplished authors can fall prey to: assuming their audience knows which questions they should be asking. Remember, authors! We are in your hands. If you want us to think something is important, you should let us know. Just as a story may fall victim to plot holes or logical inconsistencies, let us now coin another malady which may befall a story: “care holes”.

That said, there were certainly questions I asked that weren’t answered. About Geos itself… why has Lili come here, specifically? She is only one person from what is presumably a class full of students. They’re all in different locations, it seems. Is only one student allowed per location? Did the other students not want to go to Geos (bad reputation, perhaps)? Lili drew the short straw? Was there a specific reason she chose Geos? These are all questions that could be answered very quickly, and would strengthen the story’s foundations (and maybe even give it a few extra platforms to build from).

On the subject of the Mayor and the spirits who rule the island, theirs is a very lax, passive-aggressive kind of oppression. When you get right down to it, the stuff they’re up to is pretty heinous and creepy but this is not borne by their actions. The Mayor just sort of drops in from time to time to be annoyed at Lili, such as when she uncovers a room where, as evidenced by the limbs scattered about, the constructs are being brutally dismantled or destroyed. He basically stops by to let her know that she shouldn’t be so nosy, and that he’s watching her. More havoc is wreaked by Lili, and here’s the Mayor to let her know that he told a few guards to patrol. Only once before the final showdown does he directly threaten Lili’s physical well-being, saying she’ll wind up trapped in a construct herself, but then zipping off again before anything comes of it. The guards the Mayor summons, they are only reactive as well, knocking Lili back on paths when they see her, then returning to their post. They don’t chase or menace, they just kind of swat away.

The other spirits run away from Lili on sight, which is fine, since they are essentially bullies who have met their match. They tend to draw her towards the guards, evidencing their cowardice by relying on the protection of others. When Lili plucks their red flowers, though, they all have their own reaction to the event. Most are indignant, some despair, a few of them profess to secretly enjoying it. It’s not established what the removal of the flowers amounts to for them, though. Do they die? It’s probably not that severe based on their reactions. Do the flowers eventually grow back, or are they permanently scarred by this assault?

Ta-da!

And it’s totally assault what’s going down, here. There’s additional activity which would be considered criminal under other circumstances, as well. She breaks into houses, steals stuff, vandalizes defenseless pots (more on that further down), and even enables one construct to squat in an abandoned property. Lili really does become a revolutionary, anti-establishment figure, a protector and savior for the constructs. The constructs may be limited by the mind control crystal in what they can do, but they certainly are free to think. As they are imprisoned souls, it’s clear that they would rather not be. We’re only offered glimpses into one’s past, Trainer, who serves as the primary contact for objectives throughout the game. About halfway through, the Mayor engages in one of very few actual acts of aggression, and has his goons tear Trainer apart, leaving him a wrecked heap on the floor, unable to act or move but instill technically alive. That’s gotta suck.

 

Crash Blanding

A video game is a work of engineering as much as it is a work of art. Nothing breaks game immersion more than crashes that shut down the game entirely. Theater-goers occasionally experience breaks in immersion when projectors or sound systems aren’t working right… we expect movie theaters and video games alike to be consistently controlled environments. Just as it is the job of the author to make sure the story functions, it is the job of designers and programmers to make sure the game functions. Unfortunately, there was a spot in the middle where I couldn’t move into the next zone at all, as the game would crash whenever I tried. An update was released during the time I played, which let me get proceed, but there were still a few breakdowns past that. As this game was developed by a very small team, patience is easily afforded, but it was still disappointing.

Aside from the crashes, the game itself handles very nicely. One of my biggest gripes with touch-screens as an input device is actually on the heads of developers… many of them will fall back on the crutch of just putting buttons on the touchscreen to try and stand in for a controller. None of the ones I’ve tried that do this do it very well, and it’s a lazy, inelegant solution. The best touch-screen games are the ones that are intuitive and invisible in their input methods. Puzzle games work really well on touch-screens, as it is instinctual to touch a gem and drag it around, or to draw lines, or to poke objects hidden in a picture. Lili is smart about input… the only on-screen buttons open up menus. You move around by tapping the screen to start walking, double-tap to run, single-tap again to stop. You steer by dragging your finger around, which steers the camera. And then there are the action sequences!

Max-level piggyback rides

Seemingly taking a cue from the PlayStation 2 game “Shadow of the Colossus”, Lili hops on the back of the spirits and proceeds to rip loose the flowers that grow from their pine cone-like backs. Pick all the white flowers to unlock the final red flower, which ‘defeats’ the spirit. This is done by pressing and dragging the blossoms, which is made tricky by the fact that the spirits move around trying to buck you off. A few encounters in, thorns start to sprout from the spirits, which chip away at the total time you have left hangin’ on if you touch them. There are also bombs which, if left unattended, knock a much greater chunk off your endurance. Occasionally, the spirit will go into a “frenzy” where things sprout very rapidly and you have to act fast. Bomb frenzies are the worst, as they will dig into your remaining endurance something fierce. The best way to get past them is with potions sold by the vendor, which means either grinding for gold to afford them or succumbing to the in-app purchases. But I am resistant to such temptations!

There is not a whole lot of additional variation on this, just increasing difficulty as more thorns and bombs sprout, and the spirits shake around more violently, making it harder to connect with the plants you mean to pull. It holds up well enough, but I did find it got a bit tiresome towards the end. In addition, some of the later spirits are so artificially challenging that I had to reduce the game difficulty. Bomb frenzies occurring after every other white flower pick? Yeah, I’ll pass.

 

Look Around Yew

I gotta say, this game is bee-yoo-ti-ful. Vivid colors, fanciful aesthetic, lovely views and cohesive set and prop design give the world a very engrossing sense of place. The island is divided into four districts: Serfside, Splitwood, Rust Grove, and Mill Hill. This sequestration is due to story, gameplay and technical reasons. Story-wise, it creates a progression from scene to scene. Gameplay-wise, it gates progression and rewards objective completion with more content. And technically, since the creators have to account for varying hardware capabilities, each zone is as much as can be handled by the game engine at a time. Each area has a distinct motif to it, as well.

The character designs are attractive, with a kookiness to the constructs and a strangeness to the spirits. Character animations are lively and expressive, and Lili’s running animation is smooth and realistic. I call attention to this because run animations in third-person games are rather tricky to nail, and I’ve seen so many games stumble in executing this very standard action which will be on-screen, front and center, for the majority of the experience. The spirits all wear stone masks, which keep making me think they remind me of something, but I can’t pinpoint what exactly. A blend of “Shadow of the Colossus” and “Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess”, perhaps.

The game certainly wears its inspirations on its sleeve, and nods are made throughout in the form of hidden treasures. A Master Sword and Triforce piece from Zelda, a mining pick in acknowledgement of Minecraft… a plumber’s hat for Mario, a “half shell” in reference to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There are a few artifacts as well that offer little insights into mundane details of the constructs’ and spirits’ lives, as well. It’s a reward of background information, not just an increasing number counter or currency. In a couple cases, these treasures are also tied into a sub-quest, being an object of interest to a particular construct. I would have liked to have seen more of these opportunities taken. The other thing to mention about the treasures is their descriptions are written from an unspecified voice. It’s sympathetic to Lili, has to be an inhabitant of the island, but is omniscient (or at least pretty knowledgeable).

Exploring the structures on the island also reveals insights into the lives of the spirits and constructs. For example, they apparently need toilets.

Write your own pun. Or, better yet, don’t.

Aside from the Mayor, Lili converses exclusively with the constructs. In particular, the aforementioned Trainer, and an ambulatory postal box named Letterman who serves as her confidant as well as conscience (I originally just wrote “Jiminy Cricket” there). There’s a cook named Skillet who makes a soup that appears to put her fellow constructs in a daze… is this their opium? Turns out, in fact, that it’s actually made from the pulp of discarded constructs. Cannibalism, yay!

The game’s humor caught me off-guard a few times… the iTunes store listing advertises the game as “appropriate for nearly anyone”, but I think they gotta underline that “nearly” with a thick pen. I was never offended or anything, just caught off-guard… there’s a few references I’d say are, what, young adult appropriate? Upon defeating spirits, you’re treated to a tidbit of info about them. One of them appears to have been in a string of relationships where he was physically abusive, and another has opted for bigger, softer silicone flower implants. The act of plucking the red blossoms from the spirit’s backs is referred to very early on as “deflowering” them, and a bit of wordplay on “Vegi-Magical” at one point comes dangerously close to “mega-vaginal”. And then there’s the Keymaker, who is obsessed with smelling Lili.

 

Making Sense of It All

I think video games have been around long enough that “it’s just a game” is no longer a valid excuse for in-game weirdness. Whenever game logic and story logic meld, it makes for a more cohesive experience. The more often it can be done, the stronger the game is at relating its story. As the game is built around the collection of these magical flowers, the story connection is that they’re the subject of Lili’s education. It’s simple, but stable. (In contrast, I’m still not sure why Sonic the Hedgehog is collecting gold rings, for example. What do they do, and why does he care?) I would have liked a bit more background into what the magic of these flowers is, and how it connects to the forest spirits. We run around ripping them out of their backs, after all. Is there an inherent lifeforce? Are we causing any damage to the island by picking the flowers? It is unknown.

The game does have fun with a few video game conventions, such as the hero who can seemingly go anywhere, including into strangers’ houses. Early on, Lili has the opportunity to unlock doors and enter houses, in one she meets the construct Bellringer, who questions what she’s doing there. Lili evades by claiming she’s a bonafide Adventurer, and thus allowed to explore wherever she wants. Bellringer, being of simple intelligence, buys this explanation. This is a fine example of “hanging a lantern on it”, an old writing term to indicate a moment which seems illogical or implausible, but the nature of its implausibility is acknowledged by the characters or narrator within the work. But I find it interesting for in the context of video games, there’s a sort of built-in assumption that the player should have free reign over the world they’re exploring, that it’s unusual to acknowledge that this behavior is strange.

Unfortunately, there are other things that are strange and video game-y that are not supported by any sort of story logic. It could easily be rectified with a few lines of explanation here or there. In particular, when Lili is in pursuit of a spirit, they will attempt to slow her down by chucking huge cartoonish bombs at her. We can assume these are the same bombs that grow from the spirits, but that just raises further questions. Why can they grow bombs? Can they only grow bombs? Why are they allowed to throw bombs around all willy-nilly? Under what other circumstances might they be throwing bombs, aside from when being chased by Lili?

Why is this allowed!?

The one other thing I wanted to mention here was, I think, a missed opportunity. Throughout Geos, there are large decorative pots scattered around that Lili can break to release a few coins. Again, since this is a video game, we are used to the idea of breaking things to find rewards or treasures inside. But why should it be left at that? Firstly, nobody cares that these pots are being broken, not even the Mayor, who demonstrates himself to be pretty annoyed at everything Lili is doing. Secondly, when you move from one area into another and back, the pots reappear. I think it would have been a great little nod if, under the notion that the constructs on this island are all created for a specific purpose, we were introduced to a Potter construct, who delighted in making the pots and setting them out. She could even be grateful to Lili for running around and breaking the pots, as it creates an opportunity for her to make more (since the scope of the constructs’ actions are dictated by the Mayor, breaking the pots would definitely not be something this Potter character would be allowed to do).

 

One Weigh or Another

I was surprised to find that the creators went with a dual ending option for “Lili”. Upon completing the third of four zones, a letter arrives from the university urging all wayward students to return immediately, as the final exam looms. It comes at a time in the story just prior to Lili basically finalizing her efforts to end the Mayor’s reign, so it trips up the player’s narrative momentum. It was an effectively startling moment, but the fact that a choice would have to be made was poorly telegraphed. Though Lili’s internal conflict between returning to the university versus staying on the island develops well (once it’s been introduced, belatedly as I said above), there is hardly any emotional capital or narrative impetus to return home. Lili seems to have made up her mind at this point, or nearly has, so the notion that she’d feel compelled to return undercuts the progress she’d made so far.

There is very little weight or reason for her to return… she is only disappointing her father, who is a non-entity in the story. We don’t know what is important about returning to the university, or what is important about the flower research. I could speculate endlessly, but the creators haven’t given us any clues at all. Does the flower cure cancer? Is the university under the threat of budget cuts? Is her father ill? Who knows? The player certainly doesn’t, and thus the only real motivator to take the bad ending is morbid curiosity.

If you take the bad ending, on the trip back to the boat, Letterman appears a few more times to make sure this is the choice the player wants to make. Well, no, it’s not, but I’m making it because it was offered to me and I am concerning myself with story so let’s see how this goes. Abruptly, as it happens, as Lili sails away, presumably never to come back. The Mayor watches from on high, content in the knowledge that his rule will not be overturned.

Well, owing to a technical peculiarity, it’s moot anyway, as “beating” the game this way results in a free play mode where, lo and behold, you can still pursue the good ending, like nothing ever happened. I made up a story where she decides to come back and help the constructs after all.

And so you can, and it’s satisfying in the way it’s meant to be. Lili has found purpose, blazed her own trail, defined her own fate, and set the constructs free. They can fend for themselves, the remaining spirits seem like they’ll be no threat. However, there is acknowledgement of a power vacuum left in the Mayor’s absence, and multiple times in the epilogue, the thought of mobilizing the Mayor’s former bodyguards as a temporary police force is floated. Who knows if this means we’re going to come back to Geos in “Lili 2”, only this time we’re rescuing the spirits from the subjugation of the vengeful constructs. Probably not, but I’d certainly be amused by it.

Really, what it all comes down to is, I think the story would have benefited immeasurably from a dozen or so purposeful lines of extra dialogue, establishing the situation Lili is coming from, and also why she would weigh the decision to go back equally with that of staying. It’s a good story on the verge of pretty good. Who knows, I’d say almost very goodness would be in reach if the matter of the antagonists’ intermittency could be addressed as well. I will take some lasting memories from the experience, though, not the least of which is the creepy Keymaker.

This moment brought to you by the letter “ewww”

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